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Apple wants to put a computer on your finger

Plus, book chat groups, bendable styluses and "Alice in Wonderland" in patents.

Apple Watch Series 5

Like this, but even smaller.

Photo: Apple

It's the weekend, which means it's again time to switch from your bad screen to your good screen. It also means a whole new slew of patents from the U.S.' biggest tech companies is here, and there were some truly zany things going on this week. Apple wants to make an Apple Watch for your finger; Google wants to cover your house in ads; Amazon wants us to argue about "Harry Potter"; Microsoft wants to keep you alive in VR; and Facebook put the characters from "Alice in Wonderland" in Messenger for some reason.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.


Removing human interaction from your life

Google has been working on Duplex, its AI assistant that can call businesses and make reservations on behalf of a user, for a little while now — with mixed results. The company's patent from this week explains the system in more detail, and how the assistant could theoretically call every Chinese restaurant in your town to find out which has availability that evening. If it worked as envisioned, it would be a technical marvel that would almost certainly mean you would never have to talk to a maitre d' again, and also probably annoy every business in town.

Surrounded by ads

When our devices can talk to each other, they can perform useful tasks like turning on the lights, lowering the heat, or even switching channels on the TV. Now it's apparently (and inevitably) time for our interconnected devices to become digital billboards. In this patent, Google outlines a system where a user could be watching a show on one device — like a smart TV or phone — and when an ad displays, it could show related content, such as a shopping link or an instructional video, on other screens on your network. It'd be like Times Square in your living room, when all you wanted to do was catch up on "Ozark."

Robotic surgeries

Although Verily got out of Verb Surgical, its joint-venture with Johnson & Johnson exploring robotic surgeries, it's still pursuing patents around surgical bots. It was recently awarded one that describes how a robot could be used to dissect tissues, either for procedures like biopsies or to help out in surgeries. The system could use computer vision and rough instructions from a person on the areas they would like the robot to cut, presumably with greater accuracy than a human surgeon could. The robot could also image the tissue it's cutting, which could help doctors diagnose their patients. I hope in the future Verily's former sister company provides the robots, so after they perform a successful surgery, they can do a few backflips.


Robots that suck

In its quest to automate the entire retail process, one of Amazon's biggest sticking points is that not every object it sells comes in a nice square box. Humans are very good at being able to quickly understand how to pick something up, thanks to millennia of evolution. Robots, on the other hand, aren't very good at adapting. Teach them to pick up a box and they'll be able to do it forever, but if you then tell them to pick up a football, they'll struggle. Amazon has been trying for years to replace the humans who pack its boxes with robots. And a patent published this week suggests a breakthrough might be around the corner. It outlines a robotic arm with a suction system attached to the end that can form around uneven surfaces, kind of like picking something up with your mouth. Not that I've ever tried to do that.

Chatting through book recommendations

If you're after something a little deeper than the star-rating system Amazon currently uses, perhaps this patent is for you. It describes being able to chat with other Amazon users about products on the site in a sort-of group discussion. One example given in the patent's documentation is for the "Harry Potter" series: One person says "The Goblet of Fire" is the best book, and then someone chimes in to say they actually think "The Sorcerer's Stone" is better, and others agree, leading someone to purchase that book. This seems like a neat idea for comparison shopping, though anyone who would want to start a seven-book series on any book other than the first one has issues even a chat function can't fix.

Following a picture for package deliveries

Sometimes, a person's front door isn't especially obvious. I mean, if I saw this and was supposed to deliver a package to that address, I'd probably just give up. Amazon's new patent would help delivery workers figure out where to drop a package off: The first time someone delivers a package to an address, they snap a photo of the place, and future delivery workers could consult the image to see if they're actually in the right spot. It would presumably also help Amazon and its delivery people prove they delivered a package where they said they would, when they said they did.


A wearable ring computer

Apple received a patent a few weeks ago for a ring-shaped wearable to control a VR system, but this week's patent takes things much further. Apparently someone on Apple's storied design team thought it would be worth trying to jam the functionality of an Apple Watch onto an even smaller device, worn on a finger instead of the wrist. I already have a tough time reading things on the relatively small display of my Apple Watch — let alone accurately tapping on the screen — so I can't imagine reading anything on a screen like this:

Tintable windows

This patent has one of my favorite opening lines to date: "It is desirable to provide vehicles and buildings with windows." If you agree with this highly controversial statement, then read on. Apple's patent outlines an electronic system that would allow you to dynamically change how tinted your windows are. This could be useful for that extremely annoying part of the day right before dusk when the sun seems to be directly in your eyes wherever you're driving, and then it's dark before you know it. Changing up the tinting could be super helpful, especially if you're like me and can never remember where you put your sunglasses.


A sliding scale of emotion

A few years back, Facebook introduced the ability to react to posts with something other than the 👍 emoji, adding in a ❤️ and the cast of "Inside Out," but it seems that wasn't enough for Facebook. This new patent suggests a system for responding to any article posted on Facebook with a sliding scale of emotions. Instead of just seeing a happy, sad, amazed and angry emoji, you'd now see what appears to be the entire gamut of human emotion, from elated to depressed, and sort of blasé in the middle. I'm not sure why you'd want to react to something by telling the person who posted it that you're nonplussed, but to each his own. I'm blasé about it.

Battery-saving help

I'm sharing this one mainly because it has some of the wildest art I've ever seen in a patent. Most of the time, patents use generic clip-art of computers or phones or whatever they're trying to illustrate, or very crude line drawings of people. But this patent decided to dip into the public domain and drop in some drawings from Lewis Carroll's classic "Alice in Wonderland." The patent outlines a system for reducing the power consumption of an always-on social network app (like Facebook's Messenger app can be on Android devices). But overlaid on that scenario are the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat and Alice, all of whom are apparently Facebook users.


An earpiece and stylus combo

This is an interesting idea for combining peripherals with a tablet — which just happens to look a lot like Microsoft's forthcoming Surface Duo. The patent describes a stylus that can be bent into a semicircle and then used as a charging dock for a wireless earpiece. When you want to use the stylus, you snap it straight, and you can draw on your tablet. I'm not sure what the market for single earpiece and stylus combos looks like, but it's a neat way to save space on the peripherals you'd want to carry along with your new Surface tablet.

Reminding you of the real world when you're in VR

If you're deep into some VR experience, you might forget that you're not actually on the side of a mountain or on an alien starship. Microsoft's patent explains a system that could use cameras or sensors on your headset to scan the room you're in, and overlay real objects onto whatever you're looking at to remind you to be careful. It would apparently also work for moving objects — like your dog running through the room — so there shouldn't be any surprises as you navigate through your virtual world. Just make sure to not get confused and try to shoot your dog when it comes into your view.

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Cutting down on phishing

A simple way for potential hackers to figure out if email addresses are real is to put them into the sign-on page for the email provider; if the site says the password is incorrect, the hacker will know that the email address is legit. Microsoft suggests a new solution: sign-on pages that don't make it obvious whether an account is real. The system might tell a person trying to log in for the first few attempts whether the email or password is incorrect (or just keep it vague and say one or both items are incorrect), but then lock down the site if the would-be hacker keeps trying to guess email addresses. And if you're not a hacker and you can't remember your own email address, do you really even need that email?

Protocol | China

Everything you need to know about the Zhihu IPO

The Beijing-based question-and-answer site just filed for an IPO.

The Zhihu homepage.

David Wertime/Protocol

Investors eager to buy a slice of China's urban elite internet will soon have the chance. Zhihu, a Beijing-based question-and-answer site similar to the U.S.-based Quora, has just filed for an IPO to sell American Depositary Shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

What does Zhihu do?

Zhihu is China's largest online Q&A platform — the name comes from the expression "Do you know?" in classical Chinese. It was founded 10 years ago by Yuan Zhou (周源), a former journalist, and spent two years as an invite-only online platform. It quickly built a reputation as a source for quality answers and has drawn a community of elite professionals, including ZhenFund managing partner Bob Xu and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee, also an early investor.

Over time, the Chinese-language Zhihu has become more mainstream, and now says it hosts 315.3 million questions and answers contributed by 43.1 million "creators." (Quora, about one year older than Zhihu, had almost 61 million questions and 108 million answers by the end of 2019). The website has grown into a content platform where people also keep diaries, write fiction and blog as social media influencers.

Zhihu users do not look like China as a whole. Most than half are men, most live in "Tier 1" cities and more than three-quarters are under 30 years old.

Zhihu continues to emphasize the quality of its content. "Zhihu is also recognized as the most trustworthy online content community and widely regarded as offering the highest-quality content in China," its prospectus says.

Zhihu's financials

Zhihu registered for its IPO via the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, a.k.a. the JOBS Act, which has reduced disclosure requirements for companies with less than $1.07 billion in annual revenue. Zhihu's revenue doubled from 2019 to 2020, but still only reached $207.2 million, and the company is short of profitability with a 2020 net loss of $79.3 million. The company says it's "still in an early stage of monetization" with "significant runway for growth across multiple new monetization channels."

Trend lines are good. Zhihu has managed to double revenue while keeping expenses largely constant, with selling and marketing aimed at growing Zhihu's user base as the biggest single expense.

The company is trying to diversify its revenue streams. In 2019, 86.1% came from advertising. 2020 saw advertising account for 62.4% while "content-commerce" — meaning native advertising — took in 10%. The rest was mostly paid memberships.

What's next for Zhihu

After years of evincing a relaxed attitude toward monetization, Zhihu is putting itself in the hot seat to do just that. Zhihu is betting that monetizing Chinese web users will get easier over time. The prospectus describes "significant growth potential" in China's "online content community market" and says average revenue per user in China is expected to more than triple from about $55 in 2019 to about $199 in 2025, with revenue in the overall market reaching a projected $200 billion in 2025.

The company looks like it will basically try everything to monetize, and see what sticks. It plans to "ramp up our online education service" and to "continue to explore other innovative monetization channels, such as content e-commerce and IP-based monetization."

The prospectus also mentions AI frequently, touting Zhihu's AI content moderation tool wali as well as a "question routing system" and "feed recommendation and search systems." However, the depth and quality of content remains far more important to Zhihu's success. Users have joked on Zhihu about the poor quality of its wali filter.

What could go wrong?

Zhihu could fail to turn a profit. Like most content platforms, Zhihu has found it hard to monetize its traffic and the vast amount of free content at its core. The platform was built on the premise that anyone can acquire professional knowledge easily, which means users are not inclined to pay.

Since 2016, Zhihu has tried many monetization models: paid physical/virtual events, online courses taught by its top creators, premium memberships and paid consulting services. None have been a hit. Zhihu Live, the paid virtual event product, attracted a lot of public attention in 2016 and 2017, but since then its popularity has waned. According to the prospectus, Zhihu currently has 2.4 million paying members, or only 3.4% of its monthly active users.

Zhihu also faces intense competition. Defined narrowly, it has no rivals, with would-be contenders like Baidu Zhidao and Wukong, owned by ByteDance, falling by the wayside. But Zhihu has positioned itself as something more: a community for diverse content. In this regard, it's competing with big public-facing social media platforms such as the Twitter-like Weibo and Bilibili. While Zhihu's 68.5 million monthly active user base is growing fast, Weibo has over 500 million and Bilibili over 200 million. Zhihu differentiates itself with the quality and depth of its content, but maintaining that creates inevitable tension with the business imperative to expand.

Like every content platform in China, Zhihu is subject to rigid state censorship and faces harsh penalties for failing to police speech itself. Politically-sensitive questions are nowhere to be found on the platform, while other topics including transgender rights have been censored in the past. Even so, in March 2018, Zhihu was taken off every mobile app store for seven days at the request of Beijing's municipal Cyberspace Administration. Authorities did not specify why, but the suspension probably related to subtle criticisms of Xi Jinping on the platform; Zhihu promised to "make adjustments."

Zhihu's prospectus is largely mum on the censorship question, perhaps because the company feels it's gotten good enough at doing it. Zhihu says it has a "comprehensive community governance system" that combines "AI-powered content assessment algorithms" with the ability of users to report each other as well as "proprietary know-how." These resemble the same tools most big Chinese social media platforms use to censor content and keep in Beijing's good graces.

Who gets rich?

Here's what we know:

  • Founder, CEO and Chairman Yuan Zhou currently owns 8.2% of Zhihu, with another 8% worth of options, which he can exercise within 60 days of the IPO, held in a separate holding company controlled by a trust of which he is the beneficiary. Following exercise, Zhou will have the vast majority of aggregate voting power.
  • Innovation Works, beneficially owned by Peter Liu and Kai-Fu Lee, owns 13.1% of Zhihu. According to corporate database Qichacha, Innovation Works invested about $153,000 in an angel round in January 2011, then made follow-on investments in the C and D rounds.
  • Tencent owns 12.3%.
  • Qiming Entities owns 11.3%. According to corporate database Qichacha, Qiming invested $1 million in Zhihu's series A, then made follow-on investments in the B, C and D rounds.

Kuaishou, Baidu and Sogou also own stakes, as does SAIF IV Mobile Apps Limited.

Innovation Works' Kai-Fu Lee and Peter Liu, and Qiming Ventures, both of which invested early and often, look like the biggest winners besides founder Zhou.

What people are saying

"Zhihu, if it ever wants to be a truly massive platform, will need to go out of the hardcore knowledge-sharing space, and become more mainstream, more entertaining, and yes, even less intellectual. But to capture that market, who better to partner with than Kuaishou, who built its business on exactly those characteristics?" —Ying-Ying Lu, co-host of Tech Buzz China.

"After separating video content into its own feed, Zhihu is now in competition with Bilibili and [ByteDance-owned] Xigua Video. Education-themed videos used to be one of the important growth drivers for the latter two apps. Now [Zhihu], the app that specialized in educational content, has joined the game." —Lan Xi (pen name), independent tech writer.

David Wertime

David Wertime is Protocol's executive director. David is a widely cited China expert with twenty years' experience who has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, founded and sold a media company, and worked in senior positions within multiple newsrooms. He also hosts POLITICO's China Watcher newsletter. After four years working on international deals for top law firms in New York and Hong Kong, David co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a website that tracked Chinese social media, later selling it to the Washington Post Company. David then served as Senior Editor for China at Foreign Policy magazine, where he launched the first Chinese-language articles in the publication's history. Thereafter, he was Entrepreneur in Residence at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2019, David joined Protocol's parent company and in 2020, launched POLITICO's widely-read China Watcher. David is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China, a Member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and a Truman National Security fellow. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Diane and his puppy, Luna.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
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